More Than Teammates: TEXANS TEAMMATES SHARE BOND THAT IS BIGGER THAN BASEBALL
By GLENN MILLER
Roy Hobbs Baseball
Henry Esparza and Gary Griffin are more than teammates, more than merely members of the San Antonio Texans, more than men willing to lay down sacrifice bunts to help win baseball games.
Far more …
On May 18, Griffin sacrificed a kidney, donating one of his two to help save the life of his friend and teammate, Henry Esparza.
By early August, Esparza was on his way back to where he was before his illness – a fit and active baseball player who also sprints in senior track meets.
“I feel great,” Esparza, 64, said three months before he was due in Fort Myers for the Roy Hobbs World Series.
The new kidney has made the difference. Esparza received the kidney in a complicated 10-way transplant procedure that involved five donors and four other recipients.
Although he technically received the kidney of an anonymous 45-year-old woman, Griffin is listed as his donor of record. Griffin’s donated kidney was placed in an anonymous patient.
Before his illness, Esparza, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, was a sturdy 195 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame, but his illness plummeted his weight down to about 157 pounds.
He was a gung-ho ballplayer when healthy.
“I’m the guy who dives for baseballs,” Esparza said. “I’m the guy who dives head first into bases.”
Not as the summer of 2017 melted into fall. Not when his weight plummeted, his strength ebbed, his speed and power vanished and he couldn’t get through batting practice.
“He sat in the shade and passed out,” Griffin, 65, said. “We really thought we were going to lose him.”
It was that serious. The athlete they all knew had mysteriously faded away before their eyes and was rushed to an emergency room.
His wife knows all about Esparza’s healthy lifestyle and the man he had been.
“He was in great shape,” Lisa Esparza said. “He went to the gym every day. Never smoked. Never drank.”
Then came the weight loss and other symptoms.
What did this to the professor?
Goodpasture Not Good News
It was something very few people have likely heard of – Goodpasture syndrome. Webmd.com describes it as a “rare but serious autoimmune disease that attacks the lungs and kidneys.”
“Nobody has heard of it,” Lisa Esparza said. “The doctor said he has seen only one case in his career.”
The symptoms include the fatigue, nausea and vomiting that Esparza experienced before the transplant.
“The most serious consequence of Goodpasture syndrome is kidney failure, which may require either dialysis or a kidney transplant,” Webmd.com notes.
The trouble began in August of 2017. “Started to feel fatigued,” Esparza said.
That’s not all. Then came headaches and weight loss. “I was really, really feeling awful,” Esparza said.
A man who prided himself on being fit and was always eager to steal bases was transformed from robust to weak, from speedster to a shadow of his former self.
Like many men, Esparza was reluctant to see a doctor. Lisa, a pharmacist, encouraged him to seek help.
“Wives are much smarter than husbands,” Esparza said.
A clue to what ailed Esparza came when Lisa took their dog to a vet and heard about a canine illness that can be communicable to humans and induces nausea and vomiting. Maybe, she thought, this might be what was causing her husband to keep losing weight.
They went to see a physician who knew something serious was going on and told Esparza, “You’re going to the hospital.”
The doctor didn’t mean the next day or the following week. He meant immediately. That advice didn’t come a moment too soon.
“I was going to die that weekend,” Esparza said.
Test results confirmed that he was a very sick man.
“I was literally walking dead,” Esparza said. “What saved me was I was in incredible shape.”
All the baseball and track and gym workouts gave Esparza the strength to fight Goodpasture syndrome. That, plus his wife insisting that he seek medical help.
“My wife saved my life,” Esparza said.
He spent 12 days in the hospital and was put on chemo.
But to resume a normal and healthy life Esparza needed a healthy kidney, one that wasn’t riddled by Goodpasture syndrome.
That’s where the Texans entered the picture. Esparza praised all the men he plays with on the Texans.
“We’re a tight team,” Esparza said. “We don’t accept just anybody on the Texans.”
He singled out manager Dave Parker for selecting the right men.
“Dave has done a good job of bringing in men of character and integrity,” Esparza said.
But not every man of character and integrity was a medical match for a kidney transplant. Griffin recalled that Esparza wasn’t sure he wanted his friend to go through surgery and the loss of a kidney.
“I told Henry, ‘cut the crap,’” Griffin said. “You’re getting this kidney.”
Gary Griffin, an Air Force veteran and educator in the Texas State Prison System and fellow Texan, was a medical match.
If not for his courage and friendship, Esparza may still be waiting for a kidney and could be in a dire predicament.
Griffin and Esparza are not related. They’re not cousins or brothers or any other sort of blood relation.
But they are in brothers in baseball, a bond forged on Texas baseball diamonds and cemented after renowned kidney transplant surgeon Dr. Adam Bingaman performed the procedure.
Not every person needing a kidney has a friend such as Gary Griffin willing to undergo anesthesia and have an organ removed and is a match.
The non-profit Unity Network for Organ Sharing showed a waiting list of 114,513 patients waiting in August for what it termed a “lifesaving transplant.”
Griffin, to use an obvious baseball metaphor, stepped up to the plate and kept Esparza off that very long list.
It takes more than a friend with the class, courage and commitment of Griffin. There are medical considerations.
From the National Kidney Center website: “Matching organ donors with recipients is critical and challenging. Matching criteria includes medical criteria like blood and tissue type, as well as length of time waiting, body weight, size of recipient diseased organ, and severity of illness. As a result, transplant wait times can vary from a few months to several years because of matching difficulties.”
Griffin didn’t initially know if he was a suitable donor, but he knew his friend and teammate needed help. It was a decision he couldn’t make alone. He consulted with his wife, Susan.
“I came home one day and said, ‘Susan, I want to help,’” Griffin said.
Susan Griffin was on board with her husband’s wishes.
“If I could live without the kidney, why not?” Griffin said.
The other four donors and recipients of the mass transplant all had to go through with their pledges.
“All 10 had to be at the hospital,” Susan said.
There was no doubt in Griffin’s mind about his commitment.
“I was never going to back out,” Griffin said.
Everybody showed at the hospital on May 18. Esparza received his new kidney and by the next morning his old appetite for food was returning.
Now, the weight and strength and fitness are returning with each day bringing Esparza back to where he was before.
“This is a kick in the you know what,” Esparza said. “I need to get back in the swing of things.”
In the middle of the summer when Esparza talked about his condition he was eager to get back on ballfields, back to batting practice and playing games. At that point, just a bit short of three months since receiving a new kidney, he wasn’t quite ready.
“When they (doctors) said three months they meant three months,” Esparza said.
The Roy Hobbs World Series for Esparza will be roughly six months since the surgery.
“I want to be a part of it,” Esparza said. “I don’t want to be a cheerleader.”
This fall will be significantly better for Esparza than the fall of 2017 when he was sidelined.
“I was stuck to machines in the hospital,” Esparza said.
But don’t expect to see Esparza and Griffin playing together this fall. Through a slight age difference, they will play in different divisions. Esparza will play in the 60-plus division for the Texans and Gary will participate in the 65-plus age division.
This has been a challenging medical year for Griffin who seems to be spending more time in hospitals than surgeons. In addition to donating a kidney for his friend and teammate Griffin has had his gall bladder removed on July 5 and then knee replacement on Aug. 15.
Griffin’s season of surgeries, though, began on May 18 when he helped save Henry Esparza’s life.
“He was the first one to come forward,” Esparza said. “You don’t know how to respond. Just saying thank you is so inadequate.”
So much had to go right to get Henry Esparza back in uniform.
There were his wife’s love and intelligence, Griffin’s courage and class and the skill of Dr. Bingaman and the team at the Texas Transplant Institute.
Then there is that bond of men on teams, men who will do more than drop down sacrifice bunts.
“A special bond,” Griffin said.” Almost like brothers-in-arms.”
It’s a bond that Shakespeare summed up in “Henry V” in the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech:
“From this day to the ending of the world,
“But we in it shall be remembered
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,
For he today that sheds his blood with me,
Shall be my brother.”
On May 18, Gary Griffin voluntarily went into surgery and surrendered an organ so his friend and teammate and brother in baseball Henry Esparza could once again be the man he had been before Goodpasture syndrome.
That’s the nature of Texans teammates.
“It’s just a special group,” Griffin said. “All the years that go by the bond just grows stronger. I thank God every day I have the ability go out and play baseball. How many 65-year-olds can still do that?”
Now, Henry Esparza can once again play baseball. He was asked in August if he planned to be in Fort Myers for the Roy Hobbs World Series.
“You’re damn right I’m going,” Esparza said.